A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003..
.......Julius Caesar is a stage play in the form of a tragedy centering on the death of Julius Caesar and the downfall of one of his killers, Marcus Brutus. Because the drama recounts actual historical events, it may also be referred to as a history play.
Date Written: 1598-1599.
Julius Caesar: Triumphant general and political leader of Rome. Although he is highly competent and multi-talented, he is also condescending and arrogant. In his conversation, he frequently uses the third-person "Caesar" instead of the first-person "I" to refer to himself and also sometimes substitutes the kingly "we"
for "I." He depicts himself as a man of unshakable resolve, but he proudly and recklessly ignores warnings about his safety. Rumors abound that he plans to be crowned king. Historically, evidence to support the view that Caesar sought elevation to a throne is inconclusive.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.........The play begins in 44 B.C. It is February 15, the day of the annual Festival of Lupercalia, honoring Lupercus (also called Faunus), the Roman god of fertility. On this special day, Romans performed rites to promote the fertility of croplands and forests, as well as the fertility of women of child-bearing age. The Romans also commemorated the legend of the she-wolf that nurtured the mythological founders of Rome—Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars, the god of war. It was in the cave of Lupercus, on Rome’s Palatine Hill, that the wolf suckled the twin boys. Oddly, while glorifying the memory of the she-wolf during Lupercalia, the Romans also gave thanks to Lupercus for protecting shepherds’ flocks from wolves. In Shakespeare’s play, Lupercalia takes on even more significance, for it is the day when mighty Julius Caesar parades through the streets near the Palatine Hill in a triumphal procession celebrating his victory over Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War.
.........On February 15, the day of the annual Festival of Lupercalia, tradesmen gather in streets near the Palatine Hill in Rome to watch mighty Caesar as he passes by in a procession celebrating his triumph over Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War. Two tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, reproach
the tradesmen for their adoration of Caesar. Marullus cries, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” (1. 1. 27). Once upon a time, he says, the populace gathered to cheer Pompey as he passed in procession. Now, Marullus says, the same people are closing their shops to honor a man who “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” (1. 1. 43). Flavius and Marullus then chase the
tradesmen home. The two tribunes distrust Caesar, thinking him ambitious and covetous of kingly power. However, their efforts against a handful of tradesmen do little to intimidate the thousands of others gathered to applaud the great general as he and his entourage make their way to the public games.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world.......Among those accompanying Caesar on the festive day is Casca, a friend of Cassius. As Caesar’s entourage leaves the games, Cassius urges Brutus to pull Casca aside and ask him for a report on what Caesar and his friends did during the games. When Brutus does so, Casca gives this account:
.......Mark Antony offered Caesar a crown. Well aware that accepting it might anger the crowd, Caesar refused it. Antony offered it two more times, and Caesar twice more refused it—each time with greater reluctance than before. Then he suffered an epileptic seizure but recovered moments later. Nearby, the Roman senator Cicero (a political opponent of Caesar) spoke to his friends about what had taken place, and they smiled and shook their heads. But his comment was in Greek, and Casca did not understand it. At any rate, one thing seems clear: Caesar wants to be crowned, when the time is right.
.......Cassius presses Brutus to take part in an assassination plot against Caesar. The perceptive Caesar, meanwhile, smells trouble from Cassius when he looks upon him. “Yond Cassius,” he tells Mark Antony, “has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much: such men are dangerous” (1. 2. 204-205). Cassius works hard to win over Brutus to his deadly ways and, through crook and hook, eventually convinces him that Caesar must die. Brutus is a sincere, highly respected man of principle; if he says Caesar must go, Cassius knows, other disenchanted Romans will surely follow his lead. Cassius is right. After other citizens learn that Brutus has sided against Caesar, they decide to follow his lead. On March 14, the conspirators meet in Brutus’s orchard to make final plans to kill the Great One in the Capitol the next day, the Ides of March. After the meeting, Portia, Brutus’s wife, notices a change in her husband’s demeanor, saying “You have some sick offence within your mind” (2. 1. 288), and prods him to reveal his thoughts. But Lucius, the servant of Brutus, interrupts their conversation to present a visitor Ligarius, and Portia leaves the room. Ligarius then pledges his support for the plot against Caesar.
.......The night is violent: Thunder booms, lightning strikes. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, dreams that something terrible is about to smite her husband and begs him not to go to the Capitol on the Ides. She tells him what she saw in the dream:
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;.......Caesar says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once” (2. 2. 37-38). Thus, because he is not a coward and because he does not fear death, which he says “will come when it will come” (2. 2. 42), he refuses to change his plans. But after Calpurnia prevails on him further, Caesar agrees to stay home, saying, “Mark Antony shall say I am not well” (2. 2. 63). However, one of the conspirators, Decius, comes to Caesar’s house while night yields to day and persuades him to go the Capitol as planned, telling him that his wife’s dream was misinterpreted.
.......The image of blood she saw, Decius says, means “that from you [Caesar] great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood. . .” (2. 2. 97-98). Caesar says, “How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!” (2. 2. 115). At eight o’clock, other conspirators—Cassius, Brutus, Ligarius, Metellus Cimber, Casca, Trebonius, and Cinna—enter to escort Caesar to the Capitol. Caesar tells them he will be speaking at the Capitol for an hour and says, “Be near me, that I may remember you” (2. 2. 138). Trebonius replies, “Caesar, I will,” then completes his statement with an aside, speaking only loudly enough for the other conspirators to hear: “and so near will I be / That your best friends will wish I had been further” (2. 2. 139-140).
.......Out on the streets, Artemidorus, a teacher of rhetoric who has come into knowledge of the conspiracy, is reading to himself from a paper. It says,
Cæsar, beware of Brutus; take heed of Cassius; come not near Casca; have an eye to Cinna; trust not Trebonius: mark well Metellus Cimber: Decius Brutus loves thee not: thou hast wronged Caius Ligarius. There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent against Cæsar. If thou beest not immortal, look about you: security gives way to conspiracy. (2. 3. 3).......Artemidorus then posts himself along the route to the Capitol to await Caesar. Nearby is the soothsayer. When Caesar approaches, he tells the soothsayer that “The Ides of March are come” (3. 1. 3), as if to point out that the day of the dire events predicted by the soothsayer has arrived, but nothing has happened. However, the soothsayer responds, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone” (3. 1. 4). Artemidorus then importunes Caesar to read his message. However, Decius Brutus also asks Caesar to read a document—a suit on behalf of Trebonius. When Artemidorus interrupts, trying again to get Caesar’s attention, Caesar becomes irritated and ignores him. He then enters the Senate building.
.......Inside, Metellus Cimber approaches him to beg mercy for his banished brother, a pretense that allows him and the other conspirators to draw close in apparent support of Cimber but, in actuality, to post themselves at dagger distance. Caesar arrogantly rejects Cimber’s plea, saying the decree against Cimber’s brother is final. Brutus, Cassius, and Cinna also speak up for Cimber’s brother. But Caesar, comparing his own constancy to that of the North Star (the brightest in the constellation of Ursa Minor) and his immovability to that of Mount Olympus, brushes aside their pleas. Casca then stabs Caesar and the other conspirators join in, stabbing him again and again. As he dies, Caesar looks up and sees his old friend Brutus among the conspirators. “Et tu, Brute?” (3. 1. 87), he says. (The words are Latin for “And you, Brutus?”) Obviously, Caesar is pierced to his heart with the knowledge that the noble Brutus was among the assailants. After Caesar dies, Cinna shouts, “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! / Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets” (3. 1. 88-89). At a suggestion of Brutus the conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood so that they can show the people of Rome that a tyrant is dead and liberty rules. Cassius thinks the generations to come will remember them as heroes who liberated Rome.
.......Mark Antony’s servant arrives with a message: Although Antony loved and served Caesar, he does not love Caesar the dead man; he loves Brutus the living man. Brutus, believing the message was sent in good faith, sends the messenger back to tell Antony that Brutus holds no grudge; Antony may move freely about without coming to harm. Antony himself arrives on the scene shortly thereafter and shakes the bloody hands of the conspirators, saying,
Friends am I with you all and love you all,.......Clever Antony, however, has no intention of allying himself with Brutus and Cassius. Later, in the Forum, Brutus wins over a mob with a speech explaining that even though Caesar had his good points he suffered from a fatal flaw, ambition—ambition for power—that would have enslaved the citizens. Brutus says he had no choice but to rid Rome of Caesar and thereby win freedom for everyone. Antony comes forth with Caesar’s body, and Brutus tells the mob to listen to what he has to say, no doubt expecting Antony to endorse the action of the conspirators. Antony’s speech begins as if he indeed approves of the assassination of Caesar: He acknowledges that Caesar was ambitious and praises Brutus as noble. But Antony then begins to laud Caesar as a man who promoted the people’s welfare:.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome.......Antony shows the people the bloody garment Caesar was wearing when he died, pointing out the slits opened by the plunging daggers. Then he discloses provisions of the will: Caesar bequeathed the people seventy-five drachmas each and left them his private walks, arbors, and orchards to use for their pleasure. One citizen shouts, “Most noble Caesar! We’ll revenge his death” (3. 2. 222). Having lost the support of the mob, Brutus and Cassius flee the city. Civil war erupts. On the streets, angry citizens attack a poet who has the misfortune of bearing the same name as one of the conspirators, Cinna. When he informs them that he is Cinna the poet, not Cinna the conspirator, one citizen shouts, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.”
.......Antony forms a new government with two other leaders, Octavian and Lepidus; all three share power. While Brutus and Cassius raise armies of loyalists and make camp at Sardis (in present-day Turkey) on the Aegean coast, Antony and Octavian lead their forces to Philippi (modern Filippoi), near the Aegean coast in northern Greece.
.......Meanwhile, Brutus has received word that his wife, Portia, believing all was lost for her husband and herself, committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. Messala, a soldier under Brutus, then reports that he has received messages saying that Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus have purged Rome of their political enemies, killing 100 senators, including one of the Senate’s greatest orators and statesmen, Cicero, a proponent of republican government. Cicero played no part in the conspiracy against Caesar; he simply had the misfortune of being on the wrong side in Roman politics.
.......When Brutus and Cassius confer on war plans, Cassius argues in favor of waiting for the forces of Antony and Octavian to come to Sardis; the march will weary them and make them easy prey. But Brutus argues for attack, noting that the enemy is increasing its forces daily while the forces of Cassius and Brutus are already at their peak strength and can only decline. Brutus says, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (4. 3. 249-250). Cassius yields, agreeing to attack at Philippi, and the two men retire for the evening. During the night, the Ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus, but Brutus does recognize it as such. Identifying himself as “Thy evil spirit” (4. 3. 327), the Ghost says Brutus will see him again at Philippi.
.......At Philippi, Cassius and Brutus ride forth and meet Octavian and Antony for a parley, but only insults come of it. Later, Cassius tells Messala he has seen ill omens. Cassius says that
ravens, crows and kites,.......The armies clash, and the forces of Antony and Octavian eventually gain the upper hand. When Cassius’s friend Titinius is captured, Cassius decides it is time to end his struggle and orders another soldier, Pindarus, to kill him—with the same weapon Cassius used against Caesar. Elsewhere on the battlefield, Brutus orders Clitus to kill him, but he refuses to do so. Brutus gives the same order to Dardanius; he also backs away. Before asking a third man, Volumnius, to help him die, Brutus tells him that the Ghost of Caesar appeared to him—first at Sardis, then at night on the Philippi battlefield—an omen signifying that all is lost. He then asks Volumnius to hold his sword while he runs on it, but Volumnius, too, refuses to be an instrument in the death of his commander. Finally, Brutus talks a fourth soldier, Strato, into holding the sword at the proper angle. Brutus falls on it and dies. After Antony and Octavian come upon his body, they pay him homage:
ANTONY This was the noblest Roman of them all:.Themes
Idealism exacts a high price. Brutus has respect, a comfortable home, a loving wife, friends. Yet he willingly risks everything—and ultimately loses everything, including his life—to live up to his ideals. This motif is a major one in history and literature. Socrates took
poison rather than recant his beliefs; Christ was crucified after spreading His message of love and peace. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and Thomas More beheaded. In Shakespeare's King Lear, the noblest character, Cordelia, is ordered hanged by the villainous Edgar. In Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Sidney Carton goes to the guillotine to save the life of the husband
of the woman Carton loves.
.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. There are three key events in Julius Caesar that each appear to qualify as the climax: first, the meeting of the conspirators at which they approve the plan to kill Caesar; second, the assassination of Caesar; and, third, the deaths of Cassius and Brutus, ending all hope of retaining republican government. However, only one of these events appears to meet the requirements of both parts of the definition of climax—the assassination of Caesar. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to argue that either of the other two events is the climax, as many Shakespeare scholars have done.
.......Julius Caesar ranks among Shakespeare's finest plays, in part because of its highly effective imagery. Among the many and varied figures of speech in the play are the following:
Anaphora With Metaphor, Alliteration, and Hyperbole
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! (1. 1. 27)Simile With Hyperbole and Alliteration
In a metaphor, Marullus compares commoners to inanimate objects. The line also contains alliteration (stones, senseless) and hyperbole and paradox (the spectators have less sense than senseless things).
Anaphora: repetition of you
Metaphor: comparison of spectators to inanimate objects
Alliteration: stones, senseless
Hyperbole: exaggeration saying that the spectators have less sense than senseless things
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow worldMetaphors
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves. (1. 2. 143-146)
In a simile, Cassius likens Caesar to a colossus (giant); in a hyperbole, he exaggerates Caesar’s size. The line also contains alliteration (we and walk; his and huge).
Simile: Likening Caesar to a colossus (giant)
Hyperbole: exaggeration of Caesar's size
Alliteration: we, walk; his, huge
I know he would not be a wolf,Metaphor
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds. (1. 3. 111-113)
Casca, addressing Cassius and Brutus, compares Caesar to a wolf and a lion and the Roman citizens to sheep and hinds.
Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,Apostrophe, Personification, Alliteration, Hyperbole
I have not slept. (2. 1. 66-67)
Brutus compares himself to a knife that Cassius has sharpened (did whet).
O conspiracy,Irony in the Funeral Oration
Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability:
For if thou path, thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention. (2. 1. 86-94)
Brutus uses apostrophe and personification, addressing conspiracy as if it were a person, as well as alliteration (thou and thy; where and wilt; mask and monstrous). In an allusion, he refers to Erebus, the Greek god who personified darkness. In a hyperbole, he says that not even the darkness would be dim enough to hide the conspiracy unless appropriate measures are taken to conceal it
Apostrophe and Personification: Addressing conspiracy as if it were a person
Alliteration: thou, thy; where, wilt; mask, monstrous
Allusion: Erebus, a reference to the Greek god who personified darkness; also, the dark passage through which the souls of the dead pass from earth to Hades
Hyperbole: exaggeration saying that not even the darkest of places, Erebus, would not be dim enough to hide the conspiracy unless appropriate measures are taken to conceal it
.......Mark Antony's funeral oration in Act III, Scene II—beginning with "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears"—is ironic throughout. Though Antony says that he comes to bury Caesar, not to praise him,
he praises Caesar for swelling the treasuries of Rome, sympathizing with the poor, and three times refusing the crown Antony offered him. At the same time, Antony praises Brutus—one of Caesar's assassins—as an honourable man even though the tenor of his speech implies otherwise. Near the end of the speech, Antony says, "O judgment!
thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost their reason." The word brutish occurs after Antony has mentioned Brutus by name nine times. It seems brutish is a not-so-oblique reference to Brutus.
Ominous Number Three
.......The number three appears to symbolize baleful occurrences. Consider the following events involving the number three:
Mark Antony offers Caesar the crown three times.In ancient times, the number three was sometimes associated with Pluto (Greek: Hades), the god of death.
The conspirators break up their meeting at three o'clock.
Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, cries out three times in her sleep Help, ho! they murder Caesar!
Cassius tells Casca that Brutus is almost won to the conspiracy, saying, "Three parts of him is ours already."
Antony, belittling Lepidus, says, "Is it fit, the three-fold world divided, he should stand one of the three to share it?
.......Literary critic Mark Van Doren wrote the following about the speech patterns in Julius Caesar:
Julius Caesar is least notable among Shakespeare's better plays for the distinctions of its speech. All of its persons tend to talk alike; their training has been forensic and therefore uniform, so that they can say anything with both efficiency and ease. With Marullus's first speech in the opening scene the play swings into its style: a style which will make it appear that nobody experiences the least difficulty in saying what he thinks. The phrasing is invariably flawless from the oral point of view; the breathing is right; no thought is too long for order or too short for roundness. Everything is brilliantly and surely said; the effects are underlined, the i's are firmly dotted. Speeches have tangible outlines, like plastic objects, and the drift of one of them to another has never to be guessed, for it is clearly stated."—Van Doren, Mark. Quoted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Julius Caesar. Leonard F. Dean, Ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968.Historical Irony
.......It is believed that a surgical incision had to be made through the abdominal wall and uterus of the mother of Julius Caesar in order to extract him at birth. This belief gave rise to the term "Cesarean birth" (or "Caesarean birth"). Thus, a knife was used to give Caesar life, and many knives
were used to end his life.